Taking the Hint

I once had a job offer that I was fairly excited about. It was the kind of thing I enjoyed doing and the employer seemed to think I would be an excellent fit. The only difficulty was the calendar: I needed to be assured that the school schedule they followed would work for me. We went back and forth with negotiations, and they were eager to accommodate my requests.

When the final phone call for formal acceptance arrived, I found myself with an uneasy feeling. With [what seemed to be] no reason whatsoever, I said no to the job.

I didn’t have any other prospects, I wasn’t dreaming of doing something else – I just found myself unable to say yes to the thing I [thought I] wanted.

It didn’t seem like a very rational decision at the time, but it worked out because my life took a turn in a different direction soon after.

How did I know to do that? I certainly didn’t plan to turn down the position: I didn’t even know I was going to, until the very last minute! Was it the Holy Spirit nudging me? Was it some kind of foresight I didn’t know I had? Was it my gut, telling me that something was “off”, even though I couldn’t say what?

In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell explores the process of “thin-slicing”: making quick decisions based on instinct rather than on an extended period of rational information gathering and comparison. He calls it “the power of thinking without thinking.”

One of the stories he tells is that of the rope problem. A psychologist fills a room full of furniture, random objects, and tools. Two long ropes are hanging from the ceiling: they are just far apart enough that you can’t hold on to the end of one and still be able reach the other. Participants in the study are brought in and asked, how many different ways can you find to tie the two ropes together?

It turns out there are four ways, and pretty much everyone gets the first three: tie one to a piece of furniture, then go get the other; use an extension of some kind like another piece of rope to lengthen one; or, hold one rope and use a long object to pull the other towards you.

The fourth way, however, seemed to evade most people. They didn’t think to swing one rope back and forth and then grab it while holding the other.

Maier, the psychologist, “let them sit and stew for ten minutes and then, without saying anything, he walked across the room toward the window and casually brushed one of the ropes, setting it in motion back and forth. Sure enough, after he did that, most people suddenly said aha! and came up with the pendulum solution.”

Pretty simple, right? But here’s the thing:

Almost no one could articulate how they had the idea.

When he asked them to explain how they figured it out, “only one of them gave the right reason. As Maier wrote: ‘They made such statements as, “It just dawned on me”; “It was the only thing left”; “I just realized the cord would swing if I fastened a weight to it”; “Perhaps a course in physics suggested it to me”’ and so on.

Isn’t that fascinating? They weren’t lying, explains Gladwell, “it’s just that Maier’s hint was so subtle that it was picked up only on an unconscious level.”

“Snap judgments and rapid cognition take place behind a locked door” in our brains: sometimes we just know something, but when pressed to say how we know, we can’t, really. So instead of giving an accurate explanation, we act like the participants in the rope study and “make up what seemed to them the most plausible one.”

Gladwell’s work investigates these phenomena on a strictly human level. But what about when we start to consider God’s action in our lives?

We expect Him (rightly) to speak to us. But we don’t always understand how He will. Some of us might have a St. Paul moment, being knocked to the ground and hearing a voice from heaven – but I think many times God is swinging the proverbial curtain cord in our rooms.

He’s offering hints—suggestions—of the way we might proceed, the way towards a new solution to our problems. And because we are limited, we don’t usually see that the hints are coming from Him.

Part of helping ourselves to be better at “thin-slicing,” says Gladwell, is not to force ourselves to articulate what we can’t. That is, we shouldn’t try to break down the “locked door” of our minds. Rather, we can improve our snap judgments by giving that unconscious processing more space. Sometimes the less we try to focus consciously on and articulate solutions to our problems, the more our unconscious part of our minds can be free to work.

I think this is true of letting God speak to us, too. It’s good (and necessary!) to pray about our needs and ask for divine help when we have problems, no matter how small. But when we sit to listen, sometimes it’s best to stop thinking and start just being in His Presence, trusting him to give us the hints we need when we need them.

How can you give God more space to give you hints in your life?